By Jehan Perera –
The government is making a resolute effort to turn Sri Lanka around and put it in the direction of rapid economic development. The systematic manner in which it has been conducting the Covid vaccinations has earned recognition by WHO as well as the international community. The value of the military in getting things done on a large scale with minimum of delay has been manifested in the partnership that they have struck with the health authorities. The memory is fading of how some of the government leaders dabbled in alchemy and the spirit world to find an antidote to the COVID virus, despite being vested with the responsibility to strengthen the health of the country’s people. There is also increased space being given to civil society to engage in protests, such as the protracted teachers’ strike and the agitation against the expanding mandate of the Kotelawala Defence University.
The government is likewise making an effort to get the national reconciliation process underway again. A tweet from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa with regard to undertaking reconciliation in partnership with the UN and according to international standards is prominent in the news. This poses an opportunity that comes rarely in history to make a true mark and leave a legacy. Government leaders have been engaging with members of civil society to obtain their inputs on the way forward. But the path ahead is not likely to be easy. This is a government that campaigned for its election victory on an entirely different political platform. The victory of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2019 whose team championed the nationalism of the majority Sinhalese seemed to signify the end of the reconciliation process that had preoccupied the previous government at its beginning.
So far the high point of Sri Lanka’s reconciliation process has been the efforts that accompanied the election of President Maithripala Sirisena in 2015. The main themes at that election were to get the economy back to a fast track through foreign direct investments, putting an end to corruption that had gone out of control, and bringing about national reconciliation. The first two themes were meant to appeal to the population as a whole while the third, reconciliation, was targeted more at the ethnic and religious minorities. However, President Sirisena’s government was handicapped from the start as he won the presidential election only narrowly and the majority of the Sinhalese did not vote for him. It was the large majority of support he obtained from the religious and ethnic minorities that took him over the 50 percent mark to victory.
The campaign for the general election that followed the presidential election of 2015 set the tone for the rest of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government. In their election campaigns, neither President Sirisena nor Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe were specific about their plans for a resolution of the country’s protracted ethnic conflict. They did not wish to present controversial political proposals prior to the elections and alienate the majority Sinhalese voter base at the forthcoming general elections. Sri Lanka was at a fortuitous place where the international community stood ready to assist the positive initiatives of its government and the government was willing to accept such assistance. However, imperatives of electoral politics intervened to the detriment of the national reconciliation process.
Due to the mixed signals that emerged out of this two track process, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government was unable to win the confidence of the Tamil people as a whole. This was evident in the reception to the first of the transitional justice institutions that was established. The Office on Missing Persons was set up in keeping with the pledges made by the government to the international community at the UN Human Rights Council session in 2015 in Geneva. It took two years for the OMP to be set up according to law. The persons appointed as Commissioners had a high degree of credibility in civil society and with the international community. However, the problem was that the victim community that was to be the beneficiary of this process were not familiar with the commissioners and had no confidence that the process of change would yield what they wanted.
In these circumstances, the OMP experienced difficulties when they went to the former war zones to engage in fact finding and to establish their presence. They found that the local civil society and especially victims groups, such as the families of those missing, were generally skeptical about whether this OMP exercise was a genuine effort or not. On occasion protestors came and blocked the venues where the commissioners were to hold the meetings. The objections included that the OMP was a government ploy to deceive both the victims and the international community and buy time to delay the process. This showed that confidence building measures were needed prior to launching initiatives that required the cooperation of those who were on the other side of the divide.
There are different explanations regarding the protests that took place against the attempts of the OMP to set up field offices in the former war zones of the North and East. One was that those who were in the forefront of protests were being set up by hardline sectors of the Tamil Diaspora who wanted the reconciliation process to fail so that they could carry on with their fight for a separate state of Tamil Eelam. Another explanation was that the Tamil community as a whole did not trust the Sri Lankan state to be fair by them and wanted a greater degree of international participation in the reconciliation process. The Tamil experience of national mechanisms has not been positive. Today after five decades of government policies of educational standardization and quota systems, the education level of the Northern province is at the bottom whereas in the first two decades after independence it was at the top.
The sceptics were proved right with regard to the transitional justice process under the last government. The establishment of the OMP was slower than anticipated. This was not only due to the rejection of the institution by activist sections of the Tamil community, but was also due to administrative weaknesses at the central level. The setting up of the OMP as an institution became a protracted and slow process with various Administrative and Financial Regulations of the government standing in the way, driving even the commissioners to frustration. For example, the salaries offered to those who would be legal officers in the OMP were below the market rate for lawyers with the necessary competence to take on such a sensitive and controversial matter. In addition, as the political climate became more difficult for the government, even the top leaders of the last government began to distance themselves from the transitional justice process.
The challenge for the present government will be to convince the ethnic and religious minorities that is serious about the new reconciliation process that it is trying to put in motion. There needs to be confidence building measures prior to making the changes that require cooperation from those on the opposite side. The President’s tweet is important as it has set the tone for future engagements by the government both with the international community and within the country. The government actions that follow the President’s tweet need to be in conformity with its spirit. The protest in the Mullaitivu District where the last battles of the war were fought, where people are protesting publicly against their lands being taken for the expansion of an army camp needs to be heeded. The immediate release of those incarcerated for many years without trial under the Prevention of Terrorism Act could be another symbol of reconciliation.